Critical Evaluation

Like most of George Bernard Shaw’s dramatic works, Saint Joan has a didactic purpose. By the 1920’s, Shaw was disillusioned about many political programs, including aspects of his own Fabian Socialism, and he developed the concept of the “evolutionary appetite” or Creative Evolution. According to this belief, the Life Force itself needs to keep evolving and developing, thereby producing individuals who, by embodying new ideas, force humanity to the next evolutionary stage; such individuals include Jesus, Muhammad, Oliver Cromwell, and Saint Joan. New concepts necessarily threaten the existing social order, and people in power often try to suppress the ideas by killing those who embody them. Nevertheless, such powerful evolutionary ideas eventually triumph, as they must if humanity is to fulfill its destiny. Shaw believed that Joan forced the people of her time to confront two central tenets of modern consciousness: Protestantism and nationalism, both of which give greater scope to individual conscience. He discusses this theme at length in the preface (nearly half as long as the play itself) and presents it most explicitly in the confrontation between Warwick and Cauchon in scene 4. This scene was criticized for being too wordy and for its implausibility. After all, intelligent medieval people, for whom the social structure of feudalism and the power of the Catholic Church were completely self-evident, might well struggle with the exact nature of Joan’s threat, but there would have been no need for them to explain their fundamental worldviews to each other in such detail. Anticipating this criticism, Shaw insisted that twentieth century audiences, who were profoundly ignorant of history, had to have the medieval perspective spelled out for them if the play were to make any sense.

Joan’s trial (scene 6) also drew criticism for compressing historical events, for blending comedy (Stogumber’s extraneous charges) and tragedy...

(The entire section is 800 words.)